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The Project

Project Overview

For people of African descent in the Americas, there has been a tradition of freedom existing simultaneously alongside enslavement. This project seeks to tell the stories and provide documentation of those people who sought autonomous lives of their “own actions, free from the control of anyone.”[1] What began in 1996 as an inquiry into property-owning free Black women in Natchez, Mississippi and surrounding Adams County expanded from 2005 onward into a community-wide study of all free Black people who lived there for any length of time between the years 1779-1865. The work has resulted in the publication of a number of journal articles and most recently into the book Generations of Freedom: Gender, Movement and Violence in Natchez, 1779-1865. The backbone of the project and all associated publications is The Natchez Index of Free Individuals and Families of Color (hereafter Index) and The Natchez Database of Free People of Color (Database) detailed below. The intent of digitally publishing both is to disseminate this research to other scholars of enslaved and free Black people and link this project with data from different geographical regions, an endeavor that gives scholars working on transnational, comparative studies of freedom quick access to relevant demographic information. But perhaps most importantly, it will be a public platform providing resources to those people of African descent doing genealogical work on their ancestors.[2]

It has been a primary aim from the outset to collect and catalogue the primary source records available to document individuals who defied neat characterization. This involved archival investigation in local and state repositories and the collection and transcription of primary source documents. The Index archives the transcription of Adams County chancery, circuit, and probate court records, Mississippi state court records, personal letters, family papers, wills, deeds, newspapers, Spanish colonial papers, tax records, and census data, among other sources. It is organized alphabetically by surname when known or by first name. Creating the Database was a natural outgrowth of this organizational process to account for every person in a more concise and ordered fashion. Indeed, it went hand-in-hand with the process and the Index correlates directly with the Database by serving as its expanded repository. In addition to recording the name of every free Black individual who surfaced in the record, the Database includes values like gender, age, color, year of manumission, former enslaver/s, parents, occupation, property ownership, occupation, and literacy, among many others. Doing so has revealed critical patterns regarding intergenerational familial relationships, movement, and violence.  

When initial research for this project commenced in 1996, the scholarship on free people of color in Natchez largely centered around William Johnson (1809-1851), the free barber of color whose biography had been published in 1954.[4] Edwin Adams Davis and William Ransom Hogan had written an important book on an underexamined topic at the time—free Blacks—and used Johnson’s diary and family papers to focus on the man himself, the specific group of which he was a part, and the larger community in Natchez. His diary, as one of the only of its kind, a journal kept by a free person of color from 1835 until his murder in 1851 that detailed the daily life and work of himself and his family, was a driving force behind the decision to examine Natchez. In the evolution of this project, it served as a platform to investigate the women in his family: his mother, Amy, without whom his freedom and that of his sister, Adelia’s, would not have been possible; his wife, Ann, who, like him, owed her freedom to her own mother, Harriet Battles, and their five daughters. Further, though, the diary revealed valuable observations about other property-holding free women of color in Natchez. By changing the focus from his to a female perspective, how did the picture change from William Johnson’s Natchez to instead Amy Johnson’s, Fanny Leiper’s, or any other free Black woman’s Natchez?[5]

 The Index and Database had their genesis in this early period during research trips to Natchez where data collection took place primarily at the Adams County Chancery Court and the Historic Natchez Foundation (HNF). Since this was in the 1990s and digital technology was in its nascency, the primary tools used were the photocopier at the archives and a laptop. Given the realities of early research trips which consisted of a few days in Natchez, the most cost-efficient and productive use of time involved identifying and transcribing documents on-site on the laptop, with the idea of organizing everything at a later time. Thus, began the creation of individual Word documents for each source type (Spanish, chancery and circuit court records, will books, deed books, marriage books, probate records, and Police Board records). This, quite naturally led to the development of an organizational tool to allow the cataloguing of individuals, along the lines of Gwendolyn Midlo Hall’s Louisiana Slave Database and the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade Database.[9] 

Following the examination of free Black property-holding women, focus shifted to include the entire free Black community in order to transform the investigation to a gendered community analysis with especial focus on violence, movement, and the maintenance of freedom through generations. This work distinguishes between those who were born into slavery but later freed–the foundational generation–which could also include parents and their children, as well as grandchildren. The generations that follow are the conditional generations–those who were born free but whose continued freedom was based upon not only their compliance of a demanding and often unfair system, and whose persistence within the vagaries of an ambiguous and often arbitrary freedom was not permanently guaranteed.

During the course of research, some factors regarding the ambiguous status and treatment of free people of color became starkly evident, which in turn, required consideration of how to combat a level of uncertainty. At its heart is the question of distinguishing who was legally free from those who passed as free. It has long been recognized that the category of freedom itself was very ambiguous and that there was a group of people, the quasi-free, who inflated the ranks of legally free people of color: those who, for whatever reasons increasing restrictions that made it difficult or illegal for owners to free them, runaways, and a host of others acted as, but were not, technically free.[12] Due to this uncertainty, the decision was made to include all people for whom there was evidence that they acted as though they had autonomy of themselves as free. There were numerous freedom suits that took place in Natchez in which people who were born free in other states like Delaware or Pennsylvania, were illegally sold into slavery, and had to prove their freedom in the courts of Natchez. Or, they were jailed as runaways and had to fight for their freedom. There were also some who were promised freedom by an owner and for sundry reasons had to bring cases to the courts. Sometimes they were successful in their suits, other times not. However, all such individuals were included within the Index and the Database to give them the benefit of the doubt in light of the “murkiness” of the technical status of freedom and the fact that oftentimes the judgement of the courts was unclear in the extant documents. 

This project grapples with the concept of movement in a number of ways. One, the sense moving between legal states, shows that freedom was not necessarily a permanent condition, but one marked instead with permeable boundaries that engendered a tenuous and unstable state of purgatory between enslavement and freedom. As several Natchez free people of color demonstrated, one could be born into slavery, become manumitted, and slide back into enslavement for failure to pay taxes or being accused of a crime and imprisoned and then upon their release, not having the money to pay fines, all in one lifetime. Or, they did not have sufficient proof of their freedom and someone wrongfully enslaved them, and they were unable to prove their status. There were unfortunately many scenarios that highlighted the fact that once granted, freedom was not guaranteed. There were select free families of color in Natchez, like the Johnsons, who owned large amounts of property and built strong relationships with local whites and who, in key ways, were seemingly immune to threats to their status. Then there were others who were relatively unknown in town and did not have strong allies to vouch for them if they fell under suspicion for any reason and could be imprisoned, re-enslaved, or deported from the state.  

Another notion of movement, the physical movement of free Black people to and from a different geographic region than Natchez, was also a significant consideration for the population. As Natchez was a vibrant riverside community in a wealthy cotton-growing area, it was a draw to many free Black people, particularly barbers like William Hayden eager to acquire a loyal and consistent base of white patrons upon which to build a lucrative business.[13] Other times, the movement surged out of Natchez as in the case of Fanny Leiper, who owned a house in Natchez, but during a time known as the “Inquisition” of 1841 when restrictions were tightened on free Black people, she moved to Cincinnati but retained ownership of her property and rented it out.[14] Thus, there are instances of people who lived in Natchez for their entire lives, short portions of it, or who were literally passing through. Because this project runs on an inclusive model, all of those permanent or transient free people of color in Natchez are included.  

Movement for free people of color sometimes also entailed a metaphysical migration across the so-called color line. Passing as white or Indian provided protection against the violence of racial oppression and could be used as a tool to escape and avoid enslavement by manipulating the ambiguity of “race” since a large proportion of the population were of African and European descent—and a smaller number with Native American heritage. There were several clear cases of individuals and family members that either consciously pursued a strategy to racially “pass” or they are labelled as such by census takers and other residents of Natchez. Thus, definitively placing them within one racial category can be a complex undertaking. One woman, Harriet Johnson, illustrates this clearly. She was an enslaved woman who was liberated by the white father of her son with whom she eventually had three more children. He died and left her his property. She became involved with another white man with whom she had more children who also bequeathed his property to her and all her children and at some point, she slipped over the color line. To avoid being put on the auction block along with her children, she fought a court battle and found allies to vouch for her in constructing a fictitious biography. This is but one example of how the fluidity of race represents a type of movement that had great significance. [15]

The final and perhaps most unifying consideration guiding this project was the category of violence that permeated the lives of free people of color. Redefining violence against free people of color as an act that extended far beyond the obvious physical realm, this project illuminates its trajectory as it radiated primarily from white society at the individual and state level in Natchez.  In so doing, the work highlights the innumerable patterns and manifestation of violence actualized against free men and women of color and considers the gender-specific ways in which they experienced and combated it. Generations of Freedom broadens understandings of violence against free people of color by considering the relevance that explicit physical violence and psychological violence or the implicit threat of it in the form of re-enslavement, kidnapping, deportment, poverty, and racial discrimination that scholars have not generally assessed. The potential for violence was ever-present for this class of men and women.  On many levels, the constant recognition of this fact informed their life choices and affected every decision that they made.  

Free Blacks in Natchez were truly a collection of complex individuals who moved between uncertain safe havens, both in a physical as well as a legal sense to maintain the freedom, integrity, and flourishing of themselves and their loved ones. Finding the most effective digital home to document details of their lives and make them available to scholars, specialists, the public, and descendants is of the utmost importance to commemorate their lives.


[1] Leiper vs. Huffman. et al., Case 6185, Mississippi High Court of Error and Appeals, 1851.

[2] The major publications produced by myself, Nik Ribianszky, include: Generations of Freedom: Gender, Movement, and Violence in Natchez, 1779-1865, University of Georgia Press, 2021; “Natchez in Freedom and Enslavement: A Methodological Reflection on the Establishment of a Database Documenting People of Color, 1779-1865” (Michigan State University Press, forthcoming, 2021); “’Tell Them that My Dayly Thoughts are with Them as Though I was Amidst Them All’: Friendship among the Enslaved and Free People of Color in Natchez, Mississippi, 1779-1870,”  Journal of Social History 50, No. 4 (June 2017): 701-719; and “‘She Appeared to be Mistress of Her Own Actions, Free from the Control of Anyone:’” Property Holding Free Women of Color in Natchez, Mississippi, 1779-1865,” The Journal of Mississippi History LXVII, No. 3 (Fall 2005): 217-245. 

[3] Edwin Adams Davis and William Ransom Hogan, William Johnson’s Natchez: The Antebellum Diary of a Free Negro (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1951) and The Barber of Natchez (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1954).

[4] Although at the time I began using the Johnson diary, census records, Spanish records, deeds and other documents in the Adams County Chancery Court in 1996, it was largely Davis and Hogan’s work that dominated the historiography. There was scholarship that emerged that invaluably aided my work while finishing my MA thesis in 2003. For example, Gould offered an edited collection of some of the papers of the women in Johnson’s family which was extremely helpful to use in my own work. See Virginia Meacham Gould, Chained to the Rock of Adversity: To Be Free, Black, & Female in the Old South (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1998). Also, Ron Davis’s The Black Experience in Natchez, 1720-1880 (Denver: National Park Service, 1999) was a useful study. The result of this period of research was my MA thesis in 2003, “She Appeared to be Mistress of Her Own Actions, Free from the Control of Anyone:” Property Holding Free Women of Color in Natchez, Mississippi, 1779-1865 (Master’s thesis, Michigan State University) and my 2005 article, “’She Appeared to be Mistress of Her Own Actions, Free from the Control of Anyone:’ Property Holding Free Women of Color in Natchez, Mississippi, 1779-1865,”The Journal of Mississippi History LXVII, no. 3: 217-245. 

 [5] Loren Schweninger, Black Property Owners in the South, 1790-1915 (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1990) and “Property Owning Free African-American Women in the South, 1800-1870,” Journal of Women’s History 1 (1990): 14-44.

 [6] In the year before this project was started I was an MA student in Wilma King’s class on Black women and did a paper on property-owning free Black women in Nashville, Tennessee from 1850-1870 and although the census was my primary source base, a tremendous amount of information was gleaned from it.

 [7] Ribianszky, “She Appeared to be Mistress of Her Own Actions,” (2005), 217.

 [8] Gwendolyn Midlo Hall, Africans in Colonial Louisiana: The Development of Afro-Creole Culture in the Eighteenth Century (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1992); David Eltis, “A Brief Overview of the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade. Voyages: The Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade Database,” (accessed April 27, 2018); and Philip Misevich, Daniel Domingues, David Eltis, Nafees M. Khan and Nicholas Radburn, “A Digital Archive of Slave Voyages Details the Largest Forced Migration in History,” an online database explores the nearly 36,000 slave voyages that occurred between 1514 and 1866. The Conversation. 31 May 2017. (accessed 8 December 2018).

 [9] Ribianszky, “She Appeared to be Mistress of Her Own Actions,” (2005), 218-226.

[10] These included the Spanish court records, census, deed books, police board records, probate court records, marriage records, Adams County Chancery Court, Mississippi state court records, and will books for Natchez and Adams County. I did make a couple trips to the Mississippi Department of Archives and History in Jackson but as they don’t have all of the records in Natchez and Adams County and most that they do hold are on microfilm, it was more efficient to collect data at Natchez. I also made one trip to work with documents in the Natchez Trace Collection at the Dolph Briscoe Center for American History at the University of Texas in Austin but compared with the source material available in Natchez, I focused most of my attention in Mississippi. Kimberly M. Welch’s book from 2018, Black Litigants in the Antebellum American South (Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press) is a recent example of a larger regional study. She examined the contours of the “Natchez District” as a whole which is a nod to the larger geographic area under control of the various international jurisdictions prior to American acquisition. Although she includes discussion of free Black litigants in Natchez, she also has the lens trained on other counties in Mississippi and Louisiana. Due to logistics as a researcher, it made sense to focus exclusively on Natchez and Adams County.

[11] Berlin wrote about the issue of people who were quasi-free in his classic Slaves Without Masters, 143-149.  Schweninger wrote extensively about this population too in several of his works including the aforementioned Black Property Owners in the South.

[12] Hayden, William. 1846. Narrative of William Hayden, Containing a Faithful Account of His Travels for a Number of Years, Whilst a Slave, in the South, Written by Himself. Cincinnati. (accessed 10 December 2010).

 [13] Ribianszky, “She Appeared to Be Mistress of Her Own Actions,” 217, 227-229.

 [14] Ribianszky, “Tell Them that My Dayly Thoughts are with Them as Though I was Amidst Them All”: Friendship among the Enslaved and Free People of Color in Natchez, Mississippi, 1779-1870. Journal of Social History 50, no. 4 (2017), 712-713.